David Williams, who worked for many years on Graduate and Faculty Ministry staff in North Carolina and New York City, is pursuing his doctoral studies at the University of Oxford. He’s had a chance to participate in their Developing a Christian Mind Program. We are grateful for this report and hope it might encourage similar efforts among graduate students and faculty in the United States. Graduate students at Stanford have launched a similar program under this name and have opened it to other Northern California and Hawaii students. Leave a note in the comments if you are interested in more information.
On 29th-30th January and 18th-19th March upwards of a hundred postgraduate students (graduate students in the American context) and postdocs will participate in the Developing a Christian Mind (hereafter, DCM) conferences here at the University of Oxford. Attendees will learn from Christian members of Oxford’s faculty how they have integratedheir faith with their scholarly work and how they have tried to be a ‘faithful presence’ in the secular academy. Together these Oxford lecturers, tutors, researchers, and dons invite the next generation of aspiring scholars and professionals to join them in this shared calling.
January Conference: Christianity & the Life of the Mind
The January conference serves as a general introduction to Christianity and the life of the mind. Each year conference participants hear a series of talks over the course of two days in which senior academics at the University of Oxford explore the relevance of such major theological motifs as the Creation, Fall, Redemption, and the Final Consummation to their respective disciplines, as well as reflections on the calling to engage in Christian scholarship more broadly. This year, students will hear from Alister McGrath (Theology) on the challenges and opportunities for the integration of faith and learning and from Ard Louis (Theoretical Physics) on the nature of the academic vocation. Simon Horobin (English) will discuss the ways in which C.S. Lewis’s own experiences of sin, repentance, and redemption and his lifelong engagement with Milton’s Paradise Lost illuminated one another, and Elaine Storkey (Philosophy and Sociology) will expound upon the implications of Christian theological anthropology for the social sciences. Katherine Blundell (Astrophysics) will explore the relationship between the Christian doctrine of Creation and modern scientific cosmology, and, finally, Michael Lloyd (Theology and Religion, Principal of Wycliffe Hall) ends the conference on a fittingly eschatological note with a talk on ‘Christian living and scholarship in light of the world to come.’
Conference participants digest all of this rich content over multiple coffee breaks, shared meals, and breakout discussion sessions. Breakout groups are organized around broad academic specializations (e.g., Medical Sciences, Natural Sciences, Humanities, etc.) allowing students the opportunity to begin the work of recontextualizing the ideas from the talks within their own areas of research. The coffee breaks and meals allow students the opportunity to make new social and intellectual connections across disciplines and departments, sometimes laying the groundwork for exciting cross-disciplinary collaborations. Together the talks, discussions, panels, shared mealtimes, and refreshments serve to help graduate students and junior researchers to begin to reimagine their academic work and disciplines from a conscientiously Christian theological vantage.
March Conference: Seeking Wisdom
During the March conference graduate students and senior Christian academics roll up their sleeves, break into disciplinary subgroups–Humanities, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, Medical Sciences, and Philosophy and Theology–and go to work on the challenges they face in integrating their Christian faith with the nitty-gritty of their specific research areas. This year, for example, students of the Social Sciences will focus on the theme of Education, exploring the ways in which Christian understandings of human nature and society reframe sociological, political, and economic thinking about the importance and work of schooling. While each disciplinary subgroup organizes their own series of talks, papers, panel discussions, and seminars, all conference participants mix and mingle during coffee and tea and wine and cheese breaks, gather for morning and evening prayer, and share a celebratory dinner in New College’s magnificent 14th-century dining hall.
Past participants in these conferences regularly attest to DCM’s As Victoria, a 2021 graduate of both Oxford’s Saïd School of Business and Blavatnik School of Government, put it in a recent communication:
“DCM played a pivotal role in my Oxford experience. I came to Oxford with a background in Finance and Government and pursued two Master’s degrees…Prior to DCM, I had very set preconceptions about business and government: I thought the sole purpose of business was profit and that governments held the power and resources required to solve the world’s most pressing issues. Most experts in my field seemed to agree with those assumptions and organized their research around them. Within these prevailing frameworks there seemed to be little overlap between my fields of study and my faith. It was neither intuitive to challenge them through the lens of my Christian faith nor dedicate my capacity to address them from a Christian perspective.
At my first DCM conference, Donald Hay challenged us to serve God with our minds, as Jesus commanded in Matthew 22:37. I began inviting God into my coursework to renew my mind and teach me His way in Business and Government. Many of my Christian classmates also attended DCM and so we began praying together weekly, inviting God to guide our academic and professional pursuits.… I was personally transformed by my DCM experience and now have a completely renewed perspective on the role of the Christian faith in shaping our minds, and empowering us to serve God wherever He may call us. This new perspective continues to inform my professional and academic choices in a way I couldn’t have imagined possible prior.”
DCM’s twin conferences have been held biannually, bookending the winter academic term (or Hilary Term), for twelve years running (with the sole and notable exception of the March 2020 conference which was abruptly canceled at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic). Before taking its current shape, DCM had multiple precursors and prior iterations. For instance, in the 1970s Os and Jenny Guinness and David and Suzie Young regularly hosted dinner parties for their fellow postgraduates (Os and David were doctoral students at the time) in order to explore the import of the Christian gospel for thought and culture. But the vision for a faculty led program to help junior scholars cultivate a Christian mind and to think Christianly about their specialisms originated with Donald Hay.
Hay, now Emeritus, was an active member of Oxford’s Department of Economics from 1970 to 2000, teaching many of the staple economics courses for the department while also building up a solid body of research. From 2000 to 2005 he served as the first head of the Division of Social Sciences for the university, and then, from 2006 to 2007 as the Pro Vice Chancellor for Planning and Resources. Over the course of his university career, he gained a reputation for being a serious economist, a good colleague, and a scrupulously fair-minded administrator.
As has already been alluded to, Hay believed that Jesus’s Great Commandment to ‘love God with all of one’s mind’ requires a thoroughgoing Christian intellectual integrity; a commitment to keep one’s Christian convictions and one’s scholarly intellectual commitments in regular conversation with one another. Hence, over the course of his career Hay made it a point to regularly publish books and articles exploring the relevance of Christian perspectives for economic analyses of globalization, marriage and family life, the climate crisis, and more.
Hay began gathering students who were interested in exploring the relationship between their faith and their fields of study for occasional discussions in the 1980s. In the early 1990s Hay and the theologian Alister McGrath worked together to offer the first small DCM program for Oxford graduate students at St. Andrew’s Church, where they were both members. The program proved very popular but Hay and McGrath, both then at the busy midpoint of their academic careers, did not have the capacity to expand it. But when Hay retired in 2009 he decided to give his full energies to relaunching and expanding DCM as a robust program to minister to Oxford’s rapidly growing postgraduate student community. He began collaborating with a dynamic young couple, both early in their own academic careers, Ard Louis (Professor of Theoretical Physics) and Mary Johnstone-Louis (Research Fellow in Oxford’s Saïd School of Business), to reimagine and relaunch DCM. Together they developed the dual two-day conference model that DCM follows today and enlisted Christian faculty members from across the university to help in the effort.
Because of his longstanding commitment to seeking ‘the welfare of the city,’ Donald could draw from a deep well of trust and professional friendships when he began inviting some of his Christian colleagues to consider participating in DCM. And because Hay had long modeled the sort of Christian intellectual integrity that DCM aims to inculcate, his colleagues understood well that the vision of Christian scholarship to which they would be lending their names was one which compromised neither historic (‘mere’) Christian orthodoxy nor academic rigor. More than fifty faculty members at the University of Oxford have helped in leading these conferences over the last twelve years, serving well over a thousand postgraduate students in that time. Today DCM enjoys the full support of more than a dozen senior academic and administrative leaders in the university.
A Personal Note
I first learned of the Developing a Christian Mind program while still a Graduate & Faculty Ministries campus staff member in North Carolina, and I recall feeling at once inspired and intimidated by it. I resonated deeply with the conferences’ vision, but, as a relatively inexperienced and not particularly well connected (and chronically underfunded) junior staff member, doing anything on this scale seemed unreachable. Since moving to Oxford in 2018 and having become involved in the programming of DCM (my wife, Alissa, has been the conference coordinator since 2020 and I have helped in various capacities), I have come to appreciate that DCM as it exists today was in many ways the fruit of Donald Hay’s ‘long obedience in the same direction.’ His faithfulness to live out a vision of Christian scholarship and collegiality over the course of thirty years laid the relational and intellectual groundwork for an initiative to invite other scholars into that vision, an initiative to which Donald’s Christian friends and colleagues were keen to lend a hand.
If you find DCM’s conferences inspiring but seemingly unattainable, as I did, I would encourage you to consider what parts of DCM’s story chime with what you see happening now in your own campus context. Perhaps you have a few doctoral students, as Os Guinness and David Young were in the 1970s, who are keen to gather their peers to explore the intellectual implications of the gospel. Perhaps you know a few mid-career faculty members, such as Alister and Donald were in the 1990s, who would be willing to make a small start on such an initiative but who presently lack the bandwidth or the institutional influence to do much more than that. Perhaps you already have a robust community of Christian faculty who, with the right leadership and vision, might be ready to lend their voices to a DCM-like program to serve the graduate students on your campus. Or perhaps you know just one junior faculty member with a vibrant, intellectually engaged faith and a servant’s heart, and who intends to spend the rest of her career at your institution. Given what you see happening on your campus, pray and ask God what might be possible in your city or on your campus in five, ten, twenty, or thirty years’ time.
A final note, our InterVarsity colleague Wendy Quay Honeycutt has put some of the video content from past DCM conferences to use, hosting weekend DCM discussion groups for interested graduate students at Stanford University. Wendy participated in some of the early DCM conferences during her own time as a graduate student at Oxford. Many of DCM’s past talks and other resources are available online. Please feel free to share them with students and faculty, whether as part of your own ministry of helping them to integrate their faith with their scholarly work or to ast a vision for organizing a DCM-like initiative on your own campus. If you do use these resources or if you would like to start a DCM program at your university, please let us know. This information will help us as we plan for the next ten years of DCM.
About the author:
David Williams serves part-time as an InterVarsity/Link staff on loan to the Oxford Pastorate, an independent evangelical chaplaincy that ministers to graduate students at the University of Oxford. He is currently pursuing his doctorate in Christian Ethics at the University of Oxford, writing on Friedrich Schleiermacher’s, John Henry Newman’s, and Abraham Kuyper’s divergent theologies of higher education and their potential applications to the modern research university. Before moving to England, David served for five years with InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty ministries at New York University. David resides in Oxford, England with his wife Alissa and son Charlie.